Love in Contemporary American Gay Male Poetry in the Works of Richard Siken, Eduardo C Corral and Jericho Brown

By | 1 October 2015

Brown here voices criticism of his father (by implication, all fathers perhaps) and the repetitive banality of the abuse. He protests that patriarchal violence is so common, that to bring it up yet again is wearisome. He is sick of it and so, presumably are we. His father ‘scarred’ the page as indeed he scarred the lives of those closest to him. The poet feels resentment because the abuse remains naggingly potent and traumatic and so he is unable to be truly rid of the implications that violence is a relentless pathology, made ambiguous by love and memory (both of which remain suspect within the framework of the poems). Brown becomes the most (un)reliable witness as the chronicler of his families’ frailties. Susanna Childress writes:

even at this (early) point in the volume, readers understand the urgency — the potential voicelessness, misunderstanding, meaninglessness — of the speaker’s reckoning with his parents and a childhood that is like the repetition of too many others (T)he self-awareness here allows readers to see how worn thin the speaker is with the repetition in his own life and others’; voicing this makes it palatable.1

Within that recognition however, the poet also displays moral determination and in addressing the violence head on as he does (clearly taking his mother’s side), he expresses (and perhaps releases) some of his own rage. The voiced frustration of ‘I’m so sick of it’ is an appeal to our own cynicism and world-weariness and is as if the poet is saying: ‘if you agree with me here that we are all utterly sick of it, that makes you complicit and so open. You will side with me in my descriptions of my father and so be sympathetic to my view. You will shrug and say: Ah yes, they (fathers) are all the same’. We are being corralled here, via the very self-deprecation implied. This is seductive because Brown is sincerely wracked by ambivalence and so wrestles, even within the poems, with a shifting view about his father and his relationship with his readers. Both it seems are loving and ambivalent. However, in the midst of this complication of emotions, the poet asks (as if angry with himself):

And why don’t I mention
He kissed my forehead
Before covering me
On the couch that was my bed?2

This tender memory, and its consequent heart-breaking guilt, is reminiscent of Robert Hayden’s poem, ‘Those Winter Sundays’, in which ‘another awful father’ is eulogised in a poem where the distance between fear, anger and love within a family, is narrow and where it is only time that enables proper insight, leading eventually to the diminution of rage. Nonetheless, in Brown’s poems anyway, memory continues to ferry great pain and regret, if not remorse, for, like Hayden, Brown comes to understand at least something ‘of love’s austere and lonely offices’3 and in this he also understands the depths and potency of his own capacity for filial love.

As a gay man and poet, I wish to inscribe my work with what I understand to be political conscientious thought. The poets I have discussed in this paper are writers whose own political conscientiousness is manifest. Importantly, their views (and mine) were formed in the fire and then embers of the AIDS crisis, a catastrophe that clearly marked (and marks) gay men forever as separate and outside. As a consequence, Essex Hemphill, a gay black activist poet, who died from AIDS in 1995 wrote:

Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can’t become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered-down versions of Black life in America. I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.4

What Hemphill pointed to was that we exist within binary oppositions and that these define us: gay-straight, black-white, man-woman, master-slave, heterosexual-homosexual, nurture-nature and so on (the ‘ass-splitting’ truth he needed to know in order to determine tribal loyalties). We all understand these dislocations and they determine our lives and our loves. However, partly through the development of queer theory, we have come to feel something like guilt in simply identifying with any of these defining terminologies; we now see binarisms contested and rightly so perhaps. However, the danger in ascribing to any overarching ‘queer’ position (one that attempts to dilute difference or at least spread it so thin that it disappears) is that queer flirts with assimilation and the concomitant negative politics. Dennis Cooper, a gay male poet and novelist points to this danger:

If you just pour homosexuality into the models of fiction and poetry that have been there forever, that’s inherently assimilationist (…) I just don’t understand why anyone would just reupholster the usual with queerdom.5

If we view ‘identity’ as fundamentally contingent, then it is equally nebulous, elusive and politically inert. It is the ‘fixed’ nature of the liberationist stance about gender and sexuality that attracts me. Fixity means solidity and therefore a kind of certainty in terms of self-identification and purpose, at least theoretically. Taking a definitive stance in relation to one’s sexuality provides a parapet from which to shoot cannon. If gay men are certain of their identity (and then follow that in the performative act of ‘coming out’, which has as its purpose the liberation of the individual from the untruths of closetedness) the incipient and destructive damage done to a sense of selfhood that is not so defined is ameliorated, because closetedness is clearly not politically ‘conscientious’ but instead, passive and melancholy, in the face of overwhelming hostility. Coming out, or proclaiming identity as separate, is empowering and so liberatory. This argument is contested by some who would ascribe to being ‘queer’ identified. The theorist Michael D Snediker (in ‘Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions’ writes: ‘(t)he year I told myself I was gay was also the year of my first sustained encounter with depression’6. I would wish to deny the ‘causality’ claim implicit here, it remains unproved and runs counter to most stories of coming out and to the evidence available in reading the poems of openly gay men. One can only wonder what the depression might have been if Snediker had not come out.

Even in 2015, there remains the potent, political (radical) imperative to claim one’s individual sexuality (or race or whatever) and this links us with particular brotherhoods (or sisterhoods or transgenderhoods or race or whatever7) which are potent and oppositional and so form a platform for political change and action. Essex Hemphill understood the potency of an insistent identification as radical, and promulgated the significance of being out as both gay and black and in so doing proclaimed identities proudly and with radical purpose. Thom Gunn also understood the necessity to come clean about his sexual orientation, and having resisted, for a time, eventually managed it because:

Edmund White said at one stage that he thought coming out in public was good for any writer’s work. It was for mine because the subject matter is so much greater. You can never write about anything after having censored yourself 8

This kind of performative action, remains hugely significant even today, but it was always thus. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes of the nineteen eighties (during the AIDS crisis) when:

I was very aware of the politically progressive, personally transformative effects that a wave of gay coming-outs had been creating across the culture.9

In Hemphill’s case, coming out demanded a particular respect both for his black cultural history and his gayness. (He had clearly understood the lessons of the Black Panther movement and of Malcolm X’s insistence on separation as necessary resistance to the dangers of assimilation). For Gunn, his coming out was more functional for his writing self. He needed to free himself from self-censorship, and by so doing (thereby accepting a kind of sexual fixity and sexual identity) he freed himself from the chains of denial and was able to radicalise his poetry. Many gays and feminists understood the significance of ‘separation’ at the time and were radicalised (as a first step) from positions of difference. This is then representative of a foundational gay liberation position, one that resonates today. Things have not changed, except for utopian mirages on the horizon. And older gay men are left with the residual memory of the devastation and fear of the AIDS crisis. We still live with its victims and mourn many dead friends. We are also alert to present dangers. HIV infection remains present and the fear that it is growing again within the gay community is ever present. Younger gay men have come to sexual maturity without knowing the harrowing realities suffered by their older brothers and no longer face the daily agony of watching friends suffer towards death, so their own sense of danger is diminished and their sexual practices therefore are (at times) ‘liberated’ from condom use or any concerns regarding safe sex. As a consequence, younger people, it appears, find it difficult to understand either the devastation that AIDS brought, or the denial and neglect, as we attempted to wrest positive action out of the chaos of loss and despair. What older gay men remember bitterly is that:

the word AIDS didn’t cross the lips of the U.S. president (Ronald Reagan) throughout the early years of the epidemic, while legislators and pundits busied themselves with devising more or less frankly punitive schemes for rounding up, classifying, tattooing, quarantining, and otherwise damaging men and women with HIV.10

This is hugely significant in political terms and continues to impact on the lived reality for gay men − whether they know it or not. And as long as there is a gay man alive suffering the consequences of HIV infection, there remains a persistent threat to all of us from the state. We could easily revert to a climate of prejudice and/or denial and ‘the uncertainty about what kind of response to AIDS might crystallise from the state and the public sphere’.11 It is imperative therefore, to remain alert to the history of the struggle. Unfortunately, we are not done yet with AIDS in the context of the larger world-wide threat; we are also not done with it within the gay community, despite the fact that many of us may have forgotten much of its impact. We have been muffled by the successes of the treatment of HIV infection and because individuals are no longer dying so quickly. Again, as Kosofsky Sedgwick points out:

the punishing stress of loss, incomplete mourning, chronic dread, and social fracture, and the need for mobilising powerful resources of resistance in the face of such horror, imprinted a characteristic stamp on much of the theory and activism of that time12

I would add, on the poetry and literature of that time as well, especially in the gay community and this concentration still impacts today as exemplified in the works of many gay poets, including Richard Siken, Eduardo C. Corral, and Jericho Brown. For all of them, the looming spectre of AIDS is a present reality and continues to be a marker in their poetry. Jericho Brown writes, heart-breakingly enough, in a recently published poem:

                        I live

           With a disease instead
Of a lover. We take turns

            Doing bad things 
To my body, share a house

            But do not speak13

The reasons for maintaining a liberatory/social justice position, identified in terms of ‘fixed’ (and angry) notions of sexual and gender identity, remain critical. Frankly, queer politics does not cut it, because if we must wait for utopia, we will be waiting for a very long time. Also, if the ‘here and now is a prison house’14 then we must attempt to escape it now rather than risk waiting for eventual change. If we do not, we risk profound melancholy, delivered to us by a flood of contingent (but inert) possibilities. Fixedness denies utopia perhaps, but utopic mirages will not be sufficient. Indeed, a ‘forward-dawning (queer) futurity’15 sounds like political quiescence and no more than self-defeating fantasy.

  1. Susanna Childress, Four reviews: Jericho Brown, Stephanie Brown, William Greenaway, and Cathy Hong (Valparaiso Poetry Review: Contemporary Poetry and Poets).
  2. Jericho Brown, ‘Again’, Please, 15
  3. Robert Hayden, ‘Those Winter Sundays’, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair (W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2003), 62
  4. Essex Hemphill, Ceremonies, in Dwight A. McBride, ‘Straight Black Studies: On African American Studies, James Baldwin and Black Queer Studies’ in Black Queer Studies, eds Johnson E. Patrick and Mae G. Henderson (Duke University Press, 2005), 69
  5. Dennis Cooper in Our Deep Gossip: Conversations with Gay Writers on Poetry and Desire, ed. Christopher Hennessy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013), 139. My italics.
  6. Michael D. Snediker, Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions, (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009), 5
  7. Trans-gender individuals are perhaps best placed to understand the overwhelming power of the male/female divide. They exist within the very architecture of difference in that they wish to change their bodies to reflect identity. They understand, better than anybody perhaps, that being in the ‘wrong body’, and so mis-identified, means intense suffering. They clearly define ‘difference’.
  8. Thom Gunn in ‘Thom Gunn’, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, ed. Christopher Hennessy (University of Michigan Press, 2008),10
  9. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008), xvii
  10. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet. xv
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. Jericho Brown, ‘Another Elegy’, The New Testament (Copper Canyon Press, Washington, 2014), 39
  14. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 1
  15. Ibid
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